A word from the bird

Posted: September 28, 2012

As dictionaries add new words, users adjust to change

It’s one of the most ordinary and inconspicuous books on the bookshelf. It’s the oracle that holds the answers to questions such as “what does that mean?” It’s the hero to confused students trying to cram a few more impressive-sounding words into their English essays. What is this beacon of hope to the oppressed many? It is, quite simply, the dictionary.

Every year, 100 new words worm their way into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Speaking of worms, one of the 25 new words that have been added to the dictionary on August 14, 2012 is earworm.

Earworm made its debut in a 2009 Entertainment Weekly article by Stephen King, who turned the simple word meaning “a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind” into a horror story of a terrifyingly annoying tune.

Other popular words and phrases such as ‘bucket list’  (made famous by the 2007 movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson), ‘f-bomb’ (which emerged in the late 90’s) and ‘sexting’ (the Brett Farve scandal) made the list.

When new words show up in a book as common, if not a bit dusty, as the dictionary, certain questions need to be asked so that an ‘aha moment’ (a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition or comprehension) may be reached. The first one is, what is a dictionary?

Sophomore Ben Erickson believes that dictionaries are present to act as a sort of record.

“I think every word used in the English language should be put in the dictionary because it’s supposed to catalog words,” Erickson said.

Sophomore Maggie Chamberlain agrees.

“People in the future might not use those words,” Chamberlain said. “If they’re in the dictionary, they can look back at them when they might be important.”

The second quandary that could cause someone to experience a ‘brain cramp’ (an instance of temporary mental confusion resulting in an error or lapse of judgement) is if these particular words are important enough to be included in the dictionary.

Sophomore Alex Ramos has an interesting take on the importance of these specific words and words in general.

“I don’t know about ‘important’,” Ramos said with a wry smile. “But then again…how many words in the dictionary are really important? I mean; no one uses all of them.”

The third question is if words are in the dictionary; are they legitimate?

Chamberlain believes that if words are in the dictionary, it makes more sense to use them.

“I mean, the words I recognize [from this list] are used by most people, so they are words and terms that make sense,” said Chamberlain.

On the other hand, junior Hannah Diersen believes that even if a word isn’t in the dictionary it doesn’t mean it’s not a word.

“Even if words like ‘yolo’ aren’t in the dictionary, they’re still going to get used,” Diersen said.

Ramos agrees.

“A word’s a word if it’s used in a language and understood,” he said. “The question is: is it proper?”

AP English teacher Kristofor Sauer  is definitely familiar with the improper usage of words.

“Just because something is in the dictionary doesn’t mean you can use it everywhere or anywhere,” said Sauer. “One time I had somebody include text message abbreviations in something they turned in,” Sauer said, “I didn’t grade it and handed it back for the student to redo it in order to get credit.”

Usage of words seem to be a contributing factor in the decision of whether a word is considered to be plausible.

With that in mind, the final question in this little mystery is why should these words be in the dictionary?

“If they’re [words] used worldwide, might as well include them,” said Diersen

The English language is an ever-pliable thing and even though these words are commonly used today, doesn’t mean they’ll be popular in the future.

“I think that language is organic and changes over time,” said Sauer. “Words [in the future] may still be in existence but their meanings will have changed. It’s useful when we put them in the dictionary and create for them an officially recognized definition.”

These new words might serve as a ‘game changer’ (a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way)  for the Merriam-Webster.

Whether or not this ‘mash-up’ (something created by combining elements from two or more sources) of words serves as a ‘tipping point’ (the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place) for the English language, only one thing is certain. These new words are being used. All you have to do is listen…or maybe, in this case, read.

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